TILTON — For Regina Dokus, Wacky Wednesday became a mission of mirth, a way to beat isolation and despair and bring in-person cheer to residents of the New Hampshire Veterans Home during the eight months of lockdown during COVID.
When she couldn’t buy a themed outfit, the staff recreation assistant created one herself, gluing, stitching and dressing up as Wonder Woman, a Girl Scout, a cowgirl – whatever matched the theme of the day. She wheeled a cart of catchy, themed snacks to veterans sequestered in their rooms – some of whom had started to lose weight because of loneliness and depression as the coronavirus wore on for months without visits from family or outside entertainers, or the ability to gather with other veterans.
Having costume-clad staff members visit with novel treats provided happy, surprise interaction – and a reminder of the joys of in-person life.
“For me, it brings out my personality. It kind of lets us be a little bit loose with each other. It’s nice to get giddy and happy and silly so we can bring that energy to the residents,” said Jen Pickard, a recreation assistant at the Veterans Home. “It keeps the morale up” and provides a stress release for residents and staff who have grown weary or despondent during COVID. “The residents really get a kick out of it.”
“It catches residents off guard in the best possible way. You see them do a double take,” said Justin Mills, another recreation assistant at New Hampshire’s nursing home for veterans.
“Wacky Wednesday is interpreting wacky people,” said Norm Sanborn, 92, of Rochester, who served in the Merchant Marine during World War II and moved here at the outset of COVID, just in time to quarantine. “They dress up and do things. Some of the girls put on part of their old scout uniforms.”
They also dress up as superheroes, Disney cartoon characters, characters from favorite books such as Harry Potter, anything to get a rise out of residents. “They do all they can to make it happy for us,” Sanborn said.
Breaking the monotony
Wacky Wednesday, created at the start of the pandemic, broke through the monotony of identical days – and created a reason to celebrate, a spontaneous chance to relax and be human that increased camaraderie between staff and with residents, including those who were becoming discouraged and sullen over time. It also helped strike a balance between connections online and connections in-person when most interaction and entertainment was occurring by Zoom, Facetime, Skype, Google Meets, You Tube, or programming viewed on tablets. COVID’s social distancing and sheltering in place required social life and recreation planners to don thinking caps – in addition to masks and face shields – in order to provide something that was suddenly, starkly absent.
“I was looking for something we could do to bring a better spirit to the home,” said Carolee Sliker, the program assistant at the NH Veterans home who hatched Wacky Wednesday. One day she dressed up at the Queen of Hearts and posed for photos with residents when she passed out afternoon snacks. “It brings a smile to their face when they see staff dressed up. It’s really been a substitute for a lot of things,” including regular visits with family, day trips, and outside entertainers and volunteers coming on campus to help.
When Wacky Wednesday celebrated football or baseball, residents put on their sports shirts and talked with each other about their favorite teams. When Wacky Wednesday honored Disney, staff passed out cupcakes with Girl Scout cookies sticking out of the icing like mouse ears. When Earth Day fell a day shy of Wacky Wednesday, residents dined on dirt pudding – chocolate pudding with crumbled oreos and whipped cream on top.
“It’s another distraction from the craziness and isolation of COVID” – and its popularity with staff and residents means Wacky Wednesday will likely continue post-pandemic, Sliker said. “They really look forward to it.”
Family members relished seeing the photos of Facebook, which reassured them that their loved ones were well. It’s been a powerful antidote to worry and solitude for the veterans here.
After COVID resulted in long periods alone in their rooms, many formerly outgoing and active residents became withdrawn and reluctant to leave their private space. Staff used Wacky Wednesday – and the prospect of favorite staff members dressed up and serving novel foods – as a way to lure them out to mingle.
“I’ve seen extroverted residents become quiet and not want to participate” as COVID stretched toward the eight-month mark, Pickard said. “If we can just find that one thing to talk about that excites them.”
Clues and conversation-starters
Clues came from family members and staff came up with more conversation-starters.
They used Google Maps to help veterans revisit where they grew up and went to school, sparking memories and trips through time. Mills got a veteran who had worked in Manchester to open up by taking him step by step to work at his former office.
“We’re all creatures of habit,” said Mills. “It was months and months of the new normal of watching TV and eating in your room.” Suddenly, venturing out to join others seemed risky to many. “It was a lot easier to stay in their room” as restrictions lifted, but it wasn’t healthy or sustainable, he said.
“We can’t lock everyone in a bubble with air that’s recycled. We can’t live that way. The longer it goes on, the harder it is,” said Veterans Home Chaplain Paul DeHart, an Air Force vet who served during the Gulf War.
During COVID, DeHart brought interfaith services to small groups of residents living in separate neighborhoods at the Veterans Home. He increased one-on-one visits, which will continue for the future.
COVID-19 created a new kind of casualty, a war with an invisible, infectious invader. During the resulting isolation, most of the world, including older veterans, experienced what sociologists call “skin hunger,” DeHart said.
“As human beings we long for physical touch. We take for granted the handshake, a hug or getting your hair washed," he said. "The best thing to do is to be with your loved one and sit next to them and hold their hand.” As a chaplain, he added, “It’s what I try to do. When I visit, if I have gloves on, I’ll hold their hand. People just need a pat on the back every once in a while.”
“That’s where life is, sitting down with someone and listening to them talk about their lives,” DeHart said. Even with people who have dementia, “You just let them go with it, even if they tell the same story again and again. The number one thing that makes such a difference is listening. People at this stage of life have so much experience and they want to pass that on and share what they know. All our staff will take time to listen when they want to talk.”
Finding the familiar
One strategy that bridged the gap between COVID’s world of estrangement and pre-COVID life was tapping into things the veterans knew and enjoyed. “We help them to connect with the familiar, whether it’s old songs they can sing along to, or programs they like to watch, or games shows they’ve watched. It allows them to feel a sense of continuity,” DeHart said.
Sanborn, the World War II vet, has a home computer in his room and a TV with a DVD player. He enjoys watching movies and playing trivia and word games. But his favorite COVID pastime has been to visit other veterans whenever possible. It’s camaraderie that provides validation as well as endorphins.
“I like visiting the other guys and talking war stories. A lot of these guys went through what I did,” said Sanborn, who quit school at 16 to join the Merchant Marine and later served eight years in the Navy Reserve.
Gardening outside on socially-distanced raised beds has also furnished times to socialize. A 93-year old veteran who was a farmer in Augusta, Maine advises other residents on how to plant vegetables and flowers.
“I go out of the veranda and see someone I didn’t know before,” Sanborn said. “People have done all kinds of things. It’s amazing when you get talking to them.”
A challenge post-COVID will be to achieve a safe and healthy balance between online and active life, between meeting by Zoom and in-person. Because of the efficiency of teleconferencing, which exploded to offer new channels for family, business and social connection during COIVD, online options will remain.
At the New Hampshire Veterans Home, DeHart held memorial services over Zoom, which allowed distant family members to attend, as well as people who live in France and were grateful for veterans’ service during World War II.
“We now have a comprehensive method to connect residents with family members who may be hundreds of miles away,” said Dave Killiam, assistant director of nursing. “We have also been able to improve our one-to-one activities with residents who may have been reluctant to participate in group settings. We look forward to using this to provide a more balanced approach” to life.
Nearly everyone at the Veterans Home is looking forward to unrestricted visits again, activities in the community and outings by van to the area’s lakes. Buses that used to take 16 now will transport two at a time, socially distanced and wearing masks, to destinations of interest. Staff members will get off to buy refreshments for veterans to enjoy on the bus.
“It’s like bears coming out of hibernation,” said DeHart. “They’re looking for their normal life. When they reach out, not all of those things are there” yet.